Can Vegans Wear Wool?

Veganism is more visible now than it has ever been, with people choosing to go vegan or moving towards it every day. The number of vegans in the UK has almost quadrupled in the last ten years and the rise looks similar in other “developed” nations. Most new vegans convert for altruistic reasons rooted in ethics and environmentalism, but explanations like individual health benefits are also common—and, as people’s specific concerns and the circumstances of their life vary, so do their ideas about doing veganism right.

Philosoraptor asks a tough question.
Philosoraptor asks a tough question.

Definitions of veganism range from specific dietary restrictions to a life-shaping philosophy rejecting the ownership and exploitation of non-human animals. At its most its most elementary level veganism means no meat, eggs, or dairy products, but beyond that things get a little murkier. Is honey allowed? What about figs? Are natural sponges animal enough to be verboten? It’s probably not cool to buy new things made with leather or fur, but can you keep wearing or using things you already have or acquire them secondhand, or is it better to let those wind up in a landfill? And what about products made from an animals’ hair?

Whether you’re currently vegan, thinking of trying it, or resolved to eat meat the rest of your life, it’s worth thinking about where the inedible materials in your life come from and what consequences they have. These are some things you might want to consider while deciding to embrace or eschew animal fibres:

Is wool vegan?
(We’ll talk most about sheeps’ wool because it’s familiar and there are issues specific to it, but much of this discussion applies other mammals too; silk is also an animal fibre but its production carries somewhat different dilemmas.)

“The vegan philosophy—as I understand it—is that humans do not have the right to use animals for anything and doing so is always a form of exploitation because the animal has no choice in the matter,” says Nicole Tavares of Kensington Market’s Yarns Untangled. For some that’s the end of discussion: because animal fibres come from animals (who don’t choose to donate them) they’re not vegan and committed vegans should never use them. Others take a more nuanced view and say that while animal fibres are not vegan per se it’s possible for them to be vegan-friendly.

Are animals killed for their fibre?
It’s never necessary to kill an animal to obtain its fibre. That doesn’t mean it never happens: most silk farmers boil caterpillars alive processing their cocoons and in New Zealand possum “wool” is collected from dead wild brushtail possums, which are an invasive species and are culled to protect local wildlife (you can find ahimsa or “peace” silk collected after the silkworms leave their cocoons, though this might not be as compassionate as it sounds).

Half-shorn ram, illustrating how thick (and dirty) the fleece is.

Animals also die as indirect consequences of keeping and breeding them. For example, although they’re not raised for meat, older sheep whose wool production has declined are often slaughtered for consumption by humans and other animals, as are a majority of male lambs when they approach adult size because mature rams are dangerous to work with and few are needed to maintain population.

Are they hurt in other ways?
Of course, “not killing” is an awfully low bar. Some vegans argue that animal ownership is cruelty in itself, even if the barn is warm and the meals are regular (you’d get food and shelter in prison, too). It’s true that even the most self-aware, careful, and gentle caretakers are benefitting from the use of animals who have no meaningful way to consent or object to their living conditions and treatment. That said, the living conditions of fibre animals vary hugely depending on the scale and purpose of the operation.

Factory-farming sheep for wool can be as brutal as any other kind of factory farming: animals are kept in cramped, stressful, dirty conditions, neglected, roughly treated, physically altered for ease of handling (procedures including castration, tail-docking, and dehorning, usually without anaesthesia or painkillers), and at the end of their short “useful” lifespan shunted into the slaughterhouse pipeline along with dairy cows and egg-laying chickens. These industrial fibre factories value volume, efficiency, and profit far above animal welfare, and may stoop without hesitation to mutilating healthy animals to make them easier to process in bulk. (It is prudent to treat graphic “exposés” of abuse in the wool industry and elsewhere with some skepticism, however, because prominent animal rights groups have been caught more than once manipulating evidence and knowingly harming animals in their care.)

Small business and hobby set-ups, on the other hand, tend to treat their livestock somewhere between pets and valuable equipment deserving excellent maintenance. With patience and positive conditioning handlers of small flocks can opt not to practice interventions like tail-docking, ensure animals receive appropriate care and medical attention, and otherwise seek to minimize pain and stress for the duration of that creature’s natural life.

Shearing sheep and raw fleece; this method of shearing is slower but gentler on both sheep and shearers than bending over the sheep and manoeuvring it on the ground.
Shearing sheep and raw fleece; the headstand method of shearing is slower but gentler on both sheep and shearers than bending over and manoeuvring the sheep on the ground.

A gruesome procedure called mulesing is done only to merino sheep, which were bred to have loose skin that folds like a shar pei’s (creating more woolbearing surface area), and refers to cutting off strips of skin around a lamb’s tail and letting the area scar. Mulesing is supposed to be the lesser of two evils because it reduces the chance of flystrike, a life-threatening and extremely painful condition that occurs when blowflies lay eggs in the moist, dirty skin creases that hatch into maggots and eat the sheep alive. Merinos are farmed mostly in New Zealand, where mulesing is on the decline and legislators are considering an all-out ban, and Australia, where it’s still popular but the RSPCA is pushing for pain relief and research into alternative ways to prevent flystrike. You can refuse to support mulesing by avoiding products made from the wool of merino sheep (usually identified on labels as “merino” or “merino wool” rather than just “wool” because it’s so famously soft) or looking for the New Zealand Merino Company’s “ZQ” label.

Isn’t shearing cruel?
Not inherently. Shearing can look violent, since it involves sharp blades and holding animals still manually or with restraints, but it’s no more injurious than a haircut—if it’s done well. Again, there’s a big difference between operations hiring professional shearers financially motivated to injure animals getting the job done fast, and less-crowded farms with the “luxury” of taking time and care to get the job done right (a diminishing number when low prices and demand for wool make it hard to stay afloat). Even without rushing there is a risk of injury to both shearer and shearee, and even “well-behaved” animals probably don’t enjoy the process much, but shearing is not damaging in and of itself.

Anti-wool activists are correct that sheep can die of hypothermia post-shearing if the weather is bad but this is relatively rare and taking the right precautions can greatly reduce the risks. For animals that cannot shed their coats naturally, such as wool sheep and alpacas, springtime shearing is actually necessary to prevent heat stress and the serious health problems it causes (of course this is only an issue because humans have spent thousands of years encouraging them to grow thicker fleeces and now raise them in places hotter or more humid than the climates they evolved in, but leaving living animals unshorn now doesn’t help that).

Cashmere goats can be brushed or sheared to collect soft fibre.

But you don’t always need shears to get animal fibre! Cashmere can be collected from goats by brushing (though shearing may be preferred for thoroughness and to relieve the goat of unnecessary insulation before summer hits). Qiviut is prized (read: expensive) because as well as being exquisitely soft and exceptionally warm, it’s harvested on farms by combing and wild by following groups of musk oxen around and collecting the clumps of undercoat they shed. And there are even breeds of hair sheep with straight coats that shed naturally; these hardy sheep are raised mainly for meat and their “fleeces” can’t be spun for textile use but farmers have had some success crossing these with woolly breeds to create real self-shearing sheep.

Are plant or synthetic fibres better?
Depends what you mean by “better”. As Nicole reminds us, “all fibres, be they plant, animal, or synthetic, have ethical and environmental considerations.”

In addition to the alleged and actual abuses involved in animal fibre, there’s the fact that, like all forms of livestock agriculture, it demands inputs of space, water, and fossil fuel and generates a significant amount of methane gas. Over-intensive grazing can strip areas of plant life, contributing to desertification, and making space for non-indigenous fibre animals can motivate deforestation and spell bad news for local flora and fauna. Animal owners may employ toxic chemicals, such as the organophosphate insecticide “dips” that poisoned UK farmers for decades because the government mandated use and suppressed evidence of danger, hormones that persist through food chains, and antibiotics that contribute to drug-resistant bacterial outbreaks. Other chemicals involved in producing and preserving animal fibre textiles (e.g., napthalene moth repellents) can have negative effects on both workers who make and use them and end consumers when traces remain in the finished garment.

On the other hoof, animal fibres have properties that plant and synthetic fibres can’t effectively reproduce (yet) which make them better suited for a number of applications. Wool and hair fibres are more effective insulators than the alternatives, which means they keep you warm more better (and you need less of them) but they don’t trap heat the way synthetic fibres can and remain comfortable even at high temperatures. They can keep you dryer, too, both by wicking moisture away from your skin and by repelling or catching moisture from the outside. They’re significantly more elastic than plant fibres, meaning that they stretch more and have better “memory”, which makes them wrinkle-resistant and able to hold shape better over time rather than deforming with repeated wear. They’re naturally resistant to fire, static, stains, and mildew and require less frequent washing (less water, energy, and detergent), and when taken care of properly can have extremely long useable lifespans (think generations) but are ultimately biodegradable.  In addition to garments and textiles for the home, wool is used as fire-proofing and sound-dampening insulation and for cleaning up oil spills. The lanolin (sheep’s natural skin oil) in less-processed wools can repel dust mites and even moisturize your skin.

Looks can be deceiving--conventional cotton farming is ethically and environmentally rotten.
Looks can be deceiving: conventional cotton farming is ethically and environmentally rotten.

The ecological records for plant and synthetic fibres aren’t so squeaky clean either, so don’t be too quick to pat yourself on the back just because it’s not covered in wool. Synthetic fibres like nylon and polyester derive from petrochemicals, are non-biodegradable, demand high quantities of energy and water to produce, and generate dangerous greenhouse gasses like nitrous oxide. They also melt when exposed to high heat or flame, rather than just burning like plants or self-extinguishing like wool. Plant-derived “semi-synthetic” fibres like rayon, bamboo, and viscose, created by breaking pulped plant matter down chemically and reconstituting it, are similarly water- and energy-hungry, and can motivate the destruction of old growth forests and other habitats to make room for pulp plants. Conventional, non-organic cotton is a sustainability nightmare, requiring massive quantities of water, pesticides (more than any other crop), and other toxic chemicals that remain in the fibre past processing just to grow the plants, and it’s hard to trust that it’s farmed ethically given stories like the government of Uzbekistan grossly abusing its cotton-farming citizens. To make most of these materials stain-, mildew-, or fire-resistant (like wool is) producers must add hazardous substances such as PFCs—which researchers are learning aren’t always effective anyway.

Attempts to compare the environmental impacts of wool and cotton found it a tight race, with too many variables at play to pick a definitive loser; saying animal fibres are always better than the alternatives is preposterous, but it’s equally absurd to say they’re always worse. Current dominant animal husbandry practices are indeed ecologically destructive, but positive examples like Rosy Green Wool or Ontario’s own Topsy Farms (who do—as a warning—market lamb and sheepskins through their website as well as wool) show that it’s possible for fibre farming to have neutral or even positive effects on the surrounding physical and social environments.

If you still feel the cons of animal fibres outweigh the pros, you have an expanding range of synthetic and botanical materials to choose from and resources to help you choose them. For example, yarn crafters can consult lists of animal-free yarns, support specialized retailers, or identify vegan or eco-friendly substitutes that will give you the results you want. If you’re thinking of purging animal fibres from your existing wardrobe, there are plenty of people out there who need that woolly warmth and charities and aid drives to help you share it.

How can I choose animal fibres responsibly?
Look for shorter and more transparent sheep-to-shelf journeys. The most trustworthy route, outside of raising your own fibre animals, is to go directly to the farm. You can find local-to-you farms by looking online, at events like farmers’ markets, craft fairs, and agricultural or fibre-specific fairs like the annual Woodstock Fleece Festival, or at the Gladstone Hotel this February 5th at the LandMade event brought to you by Upper Canada Fibreshed. These farms may offer raw fleeces, spun yarns, finished items, or all three. If you’re looking for yarn or fibre for spinning or felting, skip big-box craft chains and drop by an independently owned local yarn store (like Yarns Untangled), where the staff tend to have more knowledge on where a given fibre comes from and which ones will serve you best.

Brenna MacDonald and Amelia Lyon, proprietors of Yarns Untangled, with sheep and yarn on site at Topsy Farms near Kingston, ON.

You can also reduce waste and resource expenditure by buying secondhand, both finished goods for use as-is or upcycling or “thrifting” unwanted items by unravelling and repurposing the yarn. Learn to recognize which goods will survive wear to last you longer and how to preserve or improve their current condition with proper care, washing, and storage.

Tracking fibre supply chains can be difficult but the situation is improving now that stakeholders in and around the textile industry are developing tools to evaluate businesses’ ethical and sustainability records and identify goods produced according to industry best practices. Among these exciting initiatives are the Global Organic Textile Standard, the Responsible Wool Standard, and the Higg Index pioneered by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. Some fairly major brands have built reputations on environmentally and socially beneficial practices, including Patagonia, Green Mountain Spinnery, and the WFTO-certified Manos del Uruguay Cooperatives.

Responsible fibre production might include farming practices like raising animal species and breeds appropriate to the climate on land that can support them (e.g., with adequate water so water isn’t diverted from elsewhere) and that will not be damaged by them (e.g., scrub land not appropriate for other agriculture); practising frequent pasture rotation to avoid overgrazing and interrupt parasite life cycles (reducing need for chemical treatments); and finding ways for the animals to “work” symbiotically performing tasks otherwise handled with machines or chemicals (e.g., mowing lawns by grazing or helping wineries by removing troublesome grape leaves). It also applies to processes the fibre goes through in between being shorn or brushed off an animal and reaching your hands, including the soaps, dyes, and other substances the fibre is exposed to (e.g., superwash treatment to resist felting using chlorine gas and plastic coating) and the oils and power sources used spinning it into yarn as well as the labour conditions at each stage. Becoming fully, certifiably organic is a complicated and expensive process in the textile industry; fibre suppliers may not be able to commit to every criterion necessary for certification but operate to the highest standard of animal and ecological welfare they can achieve, with or without official recognition.

Written by Claire Dalmyn.

Photo credits:
Philosoraptor meme: Bully Bloggers
Half-shorn sheep: Yann Arthus Bertrand
Shearing sheep with headstand: BuildanArk.net
Cashmere goats: Buzzfeed
Cotton field: Ecosalon
Brenna and Amelia with sheep: Topsy Farms